MUSKÖ NAVAL BASE, Sweden — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with his Swedish counterpart inside a naval base an hour outside Stockholm on Wednesday, a rare visit meant to signal Washington’s support for Sweden’s bid to join NATO.
The trip marks the first visit of a Pentagon chief in more than 20 years, after Defense Secretary Bill Cohen visited in 2000. It comes as momentum appears to be building for Sweden’s bid for NATO membership, after Turkey recently dropped its objections to Sweden’s neighbor, Finland, joining the military alliance.
For now, Turkey and Hungary are still holding up Sweden’s accession. But sitting across from Swedish Defense Minister Pål Jonson in a tiny, wood-paneled room deep inside a maze of tunnels at the Muskö naval base, built into the side of a mountain, Austin said he hopes to see Stockholm join NATO before the July leaders’ summit.
“We encourage our allies, Türkiye and Hungary, to ratify Sweden’s accession as soon as possible,” Austin later said at a joint press conference with Jonson in front of the Visby-class corvette Härnösand, a new class of ships designed for stealth and countering undersea mines and submarines. “Sweden’s membership in NATO is going to mean a stronger alliance and a more secure Europe.”
There are other signs the logjam is breaking. After Finland officially joined NATO, the U.S. this week approved Turkey’s request to purchase upgrades for its existing fleet of American-made F-16 fighter jets. Ankara has rejected any link between its request for F-16s and NATO votes. A larger $20 billion deal to sell 40 F-16s to Turkey is still stalled in Congress.
“It’s important to all of us that they make the decision sooner rather than later, because we look forward to having a very capable Sweden sitting at the desk beside us in Vilnius,” Austin said.
Turkey and Hungary ratified Finland’s membership bid in March — but left Sweden hanging. The decision, officials and experts say, is linked to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s strategy ahead of elections scheduled for May 14.
Helsinki and Stockholm have both introduced policy changes to address Turkish concerns on support for Kurdish groups and limitations on arms exports.
But Ankara raised more qualms with Sweden than Finland — and tensions with Stockholm escalated following a Quran burning at a protest this year. At the same time, there is speculation that Erdoğan is using the holdup as a negotiating chip in other discussions with allies.
Turkish officials insist that they support NATO expansion in principle and will ratify Sweden’s bid as soon as Ankara determines that Stockholm has met its commitments under a trilateral deal reached between Turkey, Sweden and Finland last summer.
“We have joined all the other allies in inviting Sweden and Finland to become a member of this alliance in Madrid,” said one Turkish official who, like others for this story, was granted anonymity to discuss sensitive internal matters or to speak ahead of official announcements. “That showed our commitment to open door policy.”
At NATO, meanwhile, officials still hold out hope that Turkey’s parliament will sign off on Sweden’s bid ahead of the alliance’s planned July leaders’ summit — and that Hungary will quickly ratify once Ankara signals that it will move.
“My aim remains that after the Turkish elections, but before the Vilnius summit, we can also have the ratification of Sweden,” Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told POLITICO last month.
Until the issue is resolved, Austin is eager to show support for the Nordic country located on NATO’s northern flank.
“The Sweden trip is in order to make very clear U.S. support for Sweden’s application for membership in NATO, to reassure not just the government but the people of Sweden that the United States strongly supports Sweden’s accession to NATO,” a senior Defense Department official said.
A Swedish official called the secretary’s visit “very significant” due to both the country’s ongoing NATO bid and Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.
Both Sweden and Finland, which shares an 830-mile border with Russia, have long championed a neutral military and foreign policy. But when Russia invaded Ukraine last year, public opinion shifted almost overnight toward support for NATO members.
“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed everything,” Luke Coffey, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute think tank, wrote last week.
Austin and his delegation, which included Ambassador to Sweden Erik Ramanathan and Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith, met with Jonson and Gen. Micael Bydén at the Muskö base on Wednesday. After their meeting, they visited the Maritime Operations Center.
The delegation then took the Härnösand across the Stockholm archipelago to Berga Naval Base. Austin watched from the deck as two combats boats filled with Swedish marines conducted a mock amphibious landing on one of the islands in the archipelago. Two Swedish fighter jets flew overhead.
The U.S. regularly exercises with Sweden in the sea and air in the Baltic region. Once Sweden is a member of NATO, the country’s “extraordinary advanced military capabilities” will “significantly enhance NATO’s military capability, particularly in the north,” the senior DoD official said.
Russia has a significant presence in the Baltic Sea, including a fleet of stealthy submarines that patrol the northern waters. However, the official said they were not aware of any heightened risk right now in the region “beyond the normal Russian presence and operations.”
Sweden has provided 1.9 billion euros in support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, including 1.5 billion euros in military aid. In recent months, the U.S. has ramped up military cooperation with Sweden, including increasing the number of ship and bomber task force visits, as well as high-level engagements.
“Sweden feels more secure now after we became invited to NATO,” Jonson said.
Source : POLITICO